Re: Is memetics historicist?

John Wilkins (
Thu, 25 Jun 1998 13:51:45 +1000

Date: Thu, 25 Jun 1998 13:51:45 +1000
From: John Wilkins <>
Subject: Re: Is memetics historicist?
In-Reply-To: <>

|From: BMSDGATH <>
|Date: Tue, 23 Jun 1998 14:14:00 -0400 (EDT)
|Subject: Is memetics historicist?
|It always struck me as a little ironic that Karl Popper, who wrote 'The
|Poverty of Historicism' should also be the author of 'Objective
|Knowledge: an Evolutionary Approach'.
|Did Popper inadvertently revive the very historicism he wanted to kill
|off? If we ever have good 'laws of memetics', will that enable us, in
|Wilson's words, to plot history ahead, at least roughly?
|Therefore, are we historicists?

If I may add to the responses on Popper, let me say that I do not think
that he was particularly important for the development of evolutionary
(that is, Darwinian) notions of science, which arguably go back to Darwin's
time. I recently found a quote of Huxley's:

> The struggle for existence holds as much in the intellectual as in
> the physical world. A theory is a species of thinking, and its right
> to exist is coextensive with its power or resisting extinction by
> its rivals. (Collected Essays, Macmillan, London 1893-94 2:229)

Memetics would have developed anyway, and it's arguable that Popper was
more influenced by Donald Campbell on this than the reverse (I read
Campbell and get the strong feeling that Popper doesn't really exist much
in his world, other than being the most cited philosopher of science of the
day). Campbell is the real originator of memetics as we now have it, for he
is the first really rigorous Darwinian of ideas (at least who is still
influential ;-)

However, on the issue of laws of history: I think that what is confusing
here is that Popper is in effect dealing with ontogenetic not ecological
generalisations. The idea that history moves through stages or phases (in
the views of such thinkers as Luther, Hegel, Marx, Haeckel and the cultural
evolutionists, for example) is the view that history has some predetermined
motion that drives societies or religions or whatever along. But the
absence of the analogy of a social group to an individual organism is not
the same as the absence of the analogy of social groups to populations in a
ecological context. Some dynamics are common to many different systems.
They are what philosophers call "supervenient" properties of systems. Think
of them as attractor points in social space. We may not be able to specify
in advance the progress (in the sense of pathways) of an individual social
group, but we know that rigid societies eventually collapse and other such
broad generalisations. If this is historicism, the so we are, but I don't
think that's exactly what he had in mind when he made his strictures in the
context of Nazism and Stalinism.

John Wilkins
Head, Graphic Production
The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research
Melbourne, Australia
Homo homini aut deus aut lupus - Erasmus of Rotterdam

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)